Lexi Thompson can roll it, too
RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -- Teenager Lexi Thompson, wielding her driver like a weapon, distanced herself from all competitors Sunday, making four birdies and zero bogeys on the way to winning the Kraft Nabisco Championship and becoming the second-youngest major championship winner in LPGA history.
Shocking, what she has done so young and so quickly?
"I'm surprised it didn't happen sooner," said top-ranked American Stacy Lewis, who, after finishing third, hung around Sunday to help acknowledge Thompson's victory with a celebratory beer bath at the 18th green.
Both physically and mentally, Thompson is far beyond her 19 years. She leads the tour in driving distance and is among its best in greens hit in regulation. She now has four career wins and ranks No. 6 in the world.
But no golfer has it all, so, just to keep things fair, Thompson has always fought with a balky putting stroke.
"I'd have a good amount of birdie chances and miss a few and get a little impatient," she admitted.
Otherwise, the general consensus of women's golf insiders has been that little else even hints as being a barrier between greatness.
Don't look now, but Thompson has started rolling the golf ball like Oscar Meyer makes hot dogs.
On the way to a tournament-record second-round 64 at the Kraft, she needed 25 putts. On Sunday, breaking from a final-round tie with Michelle Wie with four front-nine birdies, Thompson used only 13 putts to make it happen.
She finished the week ranked fourth on the greens.
She got there with lots of practice. With the help of instructor Jim McLean, Thompson discovered she had been standing too close to the ball in an effort to get her eyes over the line. She moved her address back a notch and realized the new stance gave her a familiar feeling from her youth.
The improvement was almost instant.
Thompson won twice in a span of four weeks to end 2013, with wins in Malaysia and Mexico. Her 19-under 265 at Sime Darby Malaysia set the scoring record for that event.
In seven events this year, she has three top-10s, including Sunday's major and a third the previous week.
"In the last six months I went through quite a dramatic change," she said. "I had moved really close to the ball to get my eye line more over it to see my line. It's not something I've been used to. Even as a little kid I stood far away from the ball and took the putter inside.
"So I just went right back to that, just go where I'm most comfortable and feel I can make the putt. I really think putting is pretty much all confidence. So I moved farther away and just take one look at the hole and just knock it in. Hopefully."
As important as every swing is in golf, just as valuable is attitude and mental approach. Frightening for Thompson's foes, along with finding comfort with her putter, she has found what seems to be a perfect sidekick for her march up the LPGA ladder.
Robert Benjamin Thompson ("My mama started calling me 'Benji' and it stuck'') took over Lexi's bag last year and, while there is no relation, they immediately bonded like family.
"They get along great," Lexi's dad, Scott, said. "Benji is quite a character. He keeps her loose. They're both young and can relate. He's also a player, so he can help her with shots and she listens."
Benji is a good ol' boy from Augusta, Ga. He has been an Augusta National caddie. For the past five years, he looped for a couple of different aspiring PGA Tour players.
But when he was contacted last year by Thompson's management company about joining her team, it didn't take long.
"The first time I saw her hit a golf ball, I could not believe it," he said. "She hits it like a man."
Benji's work on Thompson's bag also includes a little bit of friendship and a slice of sports psychology.
"I'm just not very serious," he said after Sunday's victory. "I mean today, I was out there cutting up, talking about music and telling jokes and funny stories.
"Just trying to help keep her mind off of golf. Put your mind on golf for 20 seconds and hit the shot, then hang out, have fun and then go do it again. You know."
It looks as if Thompson is starting to.
"I've just learned this the past few weeks," she said. "I usually am mentally tough on myself. I get really serious, and when I struggle I get even more serious. But these last few weeks have been huge for me with Benji, and we've pretty much laughed our way through a lot of the rounds and just had fun. That's really when my game comes out the most, like even when I'm just at home playing with my brothers, we're just having fun, listening to music, and that's when I play my best."